By Tom Baxter
In interviews over the past couple of weeks, Moderna CEO Stephan Bancel has described what would be his young company’s latest blockbuster: an annual booster, like today’s flu shots, which would protect people from both the flu and COVID, keeping pace with new variants as they come along.
A great many books are likely to be written about the race to develop a vaccine to fight COVID. At the heart of that story is mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid), the molecule which has made possible the vaccine Bancel is talking about, plus much more.
Unlike previous vaccines, these use a sliver of RNA, one of the building blocks of cells, to essentially reprogram the body to produce useful proteins. It allows scientists to combat a much wider range of ailments with much greater precision, from cancer to snakebites. It’s a little like the space shuttle: a platform which can be quickly and cheaply retooled to create a wide variety of vaccines.
Some have predicted that mRNA is going to bring on a golden age for vaccines, but that golden age is being born at a very difficult time. Skepticism about vaccines was growing even before the issue became politicized. The Americans who clamored to get their children vaccinated against polio in the 1950s would be dumbfounded to learn of the widespread resistance to a vaccine in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
The New York Times reported Monday that experts have come to believe that herd immunity against COVID in the United States, which some had hoped would come by this summer, is unlikely to be reached for the foreseeable future. The virus is mutating too quickly and people are getting vaccinated too slowly for COVID to be entirely contained. About 32 percent of the U.S. population has been vaccinated, but in a recent poll about 30 percent of white evangelical Christians and 30 percent of Republicans said they would “definitely not” get the shot.
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That means there’s going to be a demand for the type of vaccine Bancel envisions for a long time, as well as new variants in the type of political conflicts we’re seeing now.
What happens if employers, insurance companies and universities begin requiring a “super shot,” which might target other diseases as well as COVID and the flu? What if politicians get involved in what ailments go into the vaccine “cocktail?” Right now COVID shots are free and the United States has three times as much vaccine as it needs. What happens if the price of these super shots creates a new division between haves and have nots?
Derrick Rossi, the founder of Moderna who came up with the name “messenger RNA,” has said he considered calling it “harbinger RNA,” but decided that sounded too much like a warning. Politically speaking, that might be an appropriate word for a breakthrough with such enormous promise and so many unanswered questions.
A number of COVID vaccines have been developed around the world in a remarkably short time. Only two are made with mRNA: those produced by Moderna, a biotech company founded in 2010, and Pfizer, a pharmaceutical giant founded in 1849, in partnership with BioNTech, a German company which had been researching mRNA primarily as a cancer therapy. The slapstick and drama of the presidential election campaign has dominated headlines during the pandemic, but the competition between these very different drug companies has been the most thrilling race.
The idea that human cells could be used to produce their own medicine has been developing over decades, but faced considerable hurtles (one of which was overcome when the vaccination was divided into two shots) and wary investors. No mRNA application had ever won FDA approval before the pandemic began.
Then, a remarkable twist. The two mRNA vaccines were the first COVID vaccines to be accepted for use. They have since reached previously unheard-of rates of effectiveness: 95 percent for adults and 100 percent for young teens. And they have largely escaped the problems encountered by Johnson and Johnson and other vaccine makers.
Pfizer also has big plans for new mRNA applications up its sleeve. In our lifetimes, we haven’t seen anything like the COVID pandemic. We’re beginning to realize the same will be true of the breakthrough that arose from it.